oven range and stove with steaming pots and pans

An Interview with Chef Jonathan Waxman

From Chez Panisse to Top Chef Master

It’s difficult to sum up the accomplished culinary career of Jonathan Waxman. His is one that has spanned two continents, more than three decades and multiple mediums. His first foray into the American restaurant scene was after returning from training in France to his hometown of Berkeley, California, where he cooked at the pioneering restaurant, Chez Panisse. It was there that he forged a strong friendship with Alice Waters and grew more attached to fresh-from-the-soil ingredients. After a brief stint at Michael’s in Santa Monica, he left the West Coast thirty years ago and headed to New York City where his first mentor was none other than the legendary chef of Lutèce, André Soltner.

Waxman himself has mentored many celebrated chefs including Tom Colicchio and Bobby Flay. He is considered an innovator and one of the founding fathers of new-American cuisine, earning him comparisons in the music world to Eric Clapton by Los Angeles Times critic, Jonathan Gold. More recently chef Waxman returned to the limelight with appearances on Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters where he was eliminated in the penultimate episode, coming in fourth place. He spoke to us just after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the east coast about the unexpected challenges restaurant owners face, his thoughts on the current role chefs play in pop culture, and the key to longevity in the industry.

We have to start with the front-page news. Your restaurant Barbuto is one block from Zone A. How did you fare during Superstorm Sandy?

I think we were sort of unprepared for how devastating this storm surge was. I looked at every weather report and I thought we knew what we were doing. But what we had in mind was what had happened last year with Irene, and we were a little bit taken by surprise. The amount of water that came up 12th Street was phenomenal—it was like a mini-tsunami. We had covered up all the storm hatches and I picked everything up, and it was dry. My dining room was dry, and then we went down to the basement and there was about eight to ten inches of water. But since the power was off, we actually had to get it out by hand. My staff was fantastic. But the problem was it was saltwater and it kept coming back.

I read, despite power outages, the restaurant managed to do dinner service?

We did a little neighborhood thing on Tuesday night to feed people because no one could eat. Everyone was walking up 19 floors to their apartments in pitch black and we were able to get food deliveries, so we were able to feed people—and everybody can eat chicken. It was a nice thing to do, but then I realized the next day that the neighborhood was getting too dangerous for my staff. It was a ghost town and it was just really scary.

Speaking of challenging situations, you have been a cheftestant on Top Chef Masters twice. How did that come about?

Sarah Abell, from Baltz and Co., and I have done a lot of events together and I just adore her. She called me up and said, “I want you to do Top Chef Masters” and I basically said, “Go take a flying leap.” And she said, “No, no, Jonathan, you should do it.” She kept bugging me, and I kept saying, “No, no, no.” And one day, she just got really frustrated, and she called [Tom] Colicchio up and Colicchio called me up and said, “Just [expletive] do it.”

So are you glad you did it?

Honestly, it was a wonderful experience. There are a lot of reasons why I said it’s wonderful. Number one, I got to hang out with my buddies in a very intimate environment for a long time. Number two, it wasn’t that difficult. Number three, the production crew at Magical Elves is an amazing group. They really took care of us and made sure we were having a good time. It was a good experience, soup to nuts.

What have been the long-term effects of being on the show?

People actually know who I am again. Mary Sue Milliken and I had this whole conversation about it, and she said, “Do we have to be on national TV to sort of prove our merit as chefs?” And I said, “In a funny way, yes.” That’s kind of what it is. That’s how you get on people’s radar. That’s not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all.

Years ago, when Bobby Flay started getting popular on TV, and obviously, he worked with me for a long time, people would come up to me and say, “Well, aren’t you jealous of Bobby?” I would say, “The exact opposite, I’m so happy for him.”

He also was the person that carved the pathway for everybody else. You know, I just did something for my son’s school today and as I was leaving this little kid comes up to me, maybe in second grade, and says, “I wanna be a chef one day!” Isn’t that the cutest thing in the world? But think about it: It is so good for the industry to have this kind of exposure where kids in America can look at being a chef as a great profession. It really is amazing.

And now you’ve crossed into television drama with your appearance on HBO’s Treme. Was it odd to pretend to dine with your fellow chefs?

It was kind of funny. You’re with a production crew that is phenomenal. There’s such an amazing connection between the talent and the production and the ergonomics of how they film things and lighting and everything else—I was really privileged, to be honest with you.

There are a lot of similarities between television production and the restaurant business in terms of organization. How do you think the two mirror each other?

I think you hit the nail on the head. The best restaurants are 100 percent collaborative. A restaurant really is a dictatorship at the end of the day, it’s one person’s vision. But, one person who understands how to get people to work together and have a common goal.

How do you view chefs’ current role in pop culture? Are chefs stepping too far out of the restaurant kitchen?

If you get to a certain point in your career and people know who you are, and you have certain notoriety—you are an ambassador. No matter how you think about it. The best ambassador in the world is Alice Waters. She’s going around the country, and around the world, talking about edible gardens and eating beautiful foods and celebrating farmers and all this stuff. It’s a different role than cooking on the line and creating dishes, but it’s kind of the same thing. It’s just a different way of approaching it. But they are part and parcel of the same, I believe. When I used to watch Julia Child or Graham Kerr they were really ambassadors in a different way, introducing America to food.

Jams, your first restaurant in New York, opened nearly three decades ago. If you were to rewind the clock to 1983 what do you cherish most about those times?

It’s funny, I’m actually writing a little bit of my memoirs right now. You always look back with rose-colored glasses, that’s just the way life is. But what I do remember is how naïve we were. How we had to figure things out for ourselves because we had no access to information. Now with TV and with everything else, there’s so much access to different kinds of information. In 1983, did I know anything about Thai cuisine, or did I know anything about real Mexican cuisine? No. We would discover little bits and pieces of it. There were no ingredients to be had. You had to fight to get anything. Fresh fish was a huge problem. Getting a whole spring lamb? Forget about it, where the hell did you get that in those days? Now people almost yawn when they talk: “Well, yeah, I got these little baby suckling pigs and I’ve got this special balsamic vinegar from this little limited production in Modena.” Back in the day, you were lucky to even know what balsamic vinegar was.

Do you think some of that discovery element is missing now?

I think what’s missing a little bit, especially when I go to France, are the traditions. I miss the regionalism of what France was. I’ll go to these restaurants and everybody serves eclectic cuisine. I really want to go to places and have Cassoulet. I think that will come around. But what I’m afraid of is that a lot of people, especially in France, basically all want to be venture capitalists in Silicon Valley rather than work in a restaurant. I understand that. It’s more exciting! Who wants to work in a kitchen? With long hours and sweating. I think we’ll go back to what I call “artissimo effects” of wanting to learn how to make the perfect confit of duck. Or back to Italy and making that gorgeous pasta by hand.

What was that moment for you?

I think the greatest joy for me was finding that perfect peach from Frog Hollow Farms. Alice [Waters] had found this great peach and she let me taste it and it was the greatest thing I ever ate in my life. It was perfect.

Your original focus was on seasonal, New-American cuisine, as with your restaurant Washington Park. Then you opened Barbuto which is decisively Italian and recognized as your sweet spot. Now you’re also a consultant at Rosa Mexicano. How important is it for a chef to diversify?

I think it’s really up to the individual chef. Some people are going to cook one way their whole life, and they’re never going to change. Some people would be scared to stick in one vein; they would become claustrophobic. When I give cooking classes to people, what I say is, always try to get outside your comfort zone. Try to challenge yourself.

Is that the key to your success? To go outside of your comfort zone?

Maybe in a way. I’m never satisfied with what I do. I’m always hyper self-critical. I think that’s what drives me along. Like a person who makes fried chicken and makes it the same way every time; that’s boring to me. How can you be satisfied with that? I remember when I was at Chez Panisse, we used to sit around late at night and drink champagne (we always drank champagne) and talk about food and how important it was to re-imagine it. Try to always think out of the box.

Does that come from within you?

It comes from within, but it also comes from without, because I think you have to have stimuli. I always say the ingredients talk to me. I know that sounds weird, but they do. I also think that it’s important to learn from your colleagues. That’s why I love young chefs. I love going to see the people that take risks and do crazy stuff. I love breaking rules.

What advice do you have for young chefs?

Know yourself. Know who you are. Know your strengths. Know your limitations and don’t try to exceed those things. Ask a gazillion questions. When I first got into New York, André Soltner was my mentor, he taught me everything. Where do you get this, where do you get that, how much did you pay for this, how much should I not pay for this? He was fantastic. And you have to be humble.  If you’re cocky, it ain’t going to work.

I think lastly, the most important thing, which is hard, is you have to be able to be honest when you make a mistake–live with it and change. Don’t get freaked out by mistakes, mistakes are okay. Everybody makes them, we all do. I was always taught that the greatest science came from mistakes and the ability to think about things and try them out and if they backfire, they backfire. I think with cooking if you play it too safe people will just get bored. I really do.

So then what is the key to longevity in this industry?

My career has been blessed. I just had my 62nd birthday and, you know it’s really been an amazing thing. I was a musician for a long time, and I really think the reason musicians live long and interesting lives is that they just love what they do. And I think cooking is the same way. You won’t become rich, but you’ll be happy.